Political parties are private clubs, unions of like-minded individuals who combine resources, energy and ideology to help increase the chances of election to public office persons who embody the institutional character, values and qualities of the party membership.
It’s fashionable for some to claim themselves above the hew-and-fray of partisan politics. Perhaps, in the sense of not wanting to belong to any club that would have them, some claim independence from any particular political organization, or ideology. “I vote for the best candidate, not along party lines” goes the refrain; an expression of implicit superiority sometimes boosted in its rhetorical legitimacy with an added flourish, such as “I’ve voted for both Republicans and Democrats,” uttered not in shame, but pridefully.
Private clubs, yes, but private clubs with ridiculously lax standards of membership. In a few states, membership to one of the clubs requires you do nothing more than declare on a form to which club you wish to belong, making you a “registered” Democrat, or a “registered” Republican (for example).
In other states, membership is even more lax. In Indiana, for example, membership in one or the other club is as much a state of mind as anything else. But, even then, there are some rules.
Rules aren’t just for the other guy
Paragraph 6, section 3-10-1 of the Indiana Code defines those eligible to vote in a party election (i.e. a party primary) as a person who, in the last general election, “voted for a majority of the regular nominees of the political party holding the primary election.”
In other words, if in the last general election you voted for five Republicans and six Democrats, you’re not supposed to vote in the Republican primary. You’re not considered to be a member of the Republican party.
Hard to enforce, yes (but not impossible). But irrespective of the difficulty of enforcement, the penalty for transgression is serious. Paragraph 9 of section 3-14-2 of the Indiana Code states, flatly, “A person who knowingly votes or offers to vote at an election when the person is not registered or authorized to vote commits a Class D felony.”
A class D felony -- i.e. a crime for whose punishment includes a minimum of one year behind bars.
Sound dramatic? It is. But because party primaries are the de jure votes among party members, about which persons will represent that party’s members in the general election, the drama is warranted.
As is the penalty for transgression.
And playing by the rules
Because transgression is vote fraud. It’s simply cheating to vote in the primary of a party to which one does not belong. And it’s morally reprehensible to do so with the explicit intention of perverting that party’s internal nomination procedure.
Which is exactly what some Republicans are advocating in this election season. Spurred on by talk show bigot and serial cheater Rush Limbaugh, some Republicans are advocating an “Operation Chaos” and urging each other, because their own national primary is moribund, to cross over and vote in the Democratic primary.
Not because they’re excited about the possibility that the United States can make good on its moral claim to the melting pot, electing a black man president. Nor its claim that the highest office in the land is attainable by anyone, if they only work hard enough, by electing the nation’s first woman president.
But because, and only because, they want to ratfuck (as former President Nixon so delicately put it) the Democratic Party primary. They want to corrupt it. They want to cheat it.
Limbaugh came close to being prosecuted in Ohio, where his “Operation Cheat” brought a surge of 16,000 Republican “crossover” voters into the Democratic primary there, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. But the difficulty of proving intent, of showing that the crossover was malicious, not unintentional or innocent, ultimately convinced the Ohio authorities not to go forward.
And Limbaugh reacted as he always does when caught in an act of moral turpitude, but without sufficient basis for legal sanction: he gloated.
Nor will he likely find much legal resistance here in Indiana, even though Indiana Code 3-14-2-1 makes it a felony to “Conspire with an individual for the purpose of encouraging the individual to submit a false application for registration,” which is exactly what Limbaugh is doing when instructing Republicans on how to vote in the Democratic primary.
The Fourth Estate
So what to do then? What to do if you are genuinely interested in the probity of our electoral system? If you care about eliminating corruption and want to see the process as fraud-free as possible? As I said, there’s not much in the legal avenue at hand.
But there is the court of public opinion. And, because voting records (though not actual votes cast) are a matter of public record, it’s pretty easy to see who crossed over, and who did not. And it’s easy to determine by prior primary records, by statements made by those individuals, and by interviewing them directly whether or not they crossed over in good faith, or for the sole purpose of committing election fraud.
But that, and a discussion of what happened and who those individuals are, will have to wait for another column, after the primary.
Gregory Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.